Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Tom Hanks, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Clarke Duncan, and others
This movie, which is based on a novel by Stephen King of the same name, centers on the story of a retired old man, Paul, who recounts the peculiar experiences he had as an officer working at a prison for death row inmates. The tale begins with the arrival of a stocky African American man named John at the prison where Paul works. He joins the death row as the murderer who is believed to have raped and killed two white girls. Given his daunting size, state of being mentally challenged, and—though not directly stated—his being an African American during a time when racism ran deep, his culpability is initially unquestioned. Gradually, however, John uses his special psychic powers to demonstrate that his outer appearances belie his true innocent nature. He even uses them prior to his execution to show Paul that the crimes which he is accused of having committed were in fact committed by another. Despite this, the execution is carried out because there is no concrete evidence of anything. The audience can infer that, as the reason he ended up on the death row in the first place is that the legal system favored the accusations of white people despite the lack of supporting evidence, the testimony of an African American has virtually no chance of overturning the verdict at that point, anyway. In spite of his condition, John seems to understand this and therefore, he willingly accepts his fate. As for Paul, he is left to live on with the trauma of knowing that he knowingly took part in the killing of an innocent.
The movie’s overarching theme of prejudice, especially in the form of racism, forms the basis for the argument against the death penalty. Through a moving depiction of the execution of an innocent man who fell victim to his society’s prejudices, the movie prompts the audience to take a long, hard look at the “objectivity” of the law system. Is it actually possible for those rendering judgments to be completely free of all biases all the time? That cannot be the case because all people—even those in the legal profession—are affected by some preconceptions that they have unknowingly formed from the stimuli they encounter throughout their lives.
Then, there is the questionability of the concept of certainty. Although the plot involves supernatural elements, those very elements play an important role in pointing out the fallibility of the death penalty system in that they help to illustrate the point that there are just some things about which people can never be certain. John’s psychic powers are necessary for the revelation of the truth. They make for an interesting and convenient device that allows the audience to find out the truth, but at the same time, they are a reminder of their absence in reality and the consequent outcome that people cannot be completely sure of anything that they themselves have not seen.
By raising these critical points, Frank Darabont and Stephen King invite the audience to think twice about the legitimacy of the death penalty and reinforce the argument of the opponents that the condemnation of people to as harsh and irreversible a form of punishment as death is untenable.
Human Asia intern: Sohee Lee